Age Statements on Scotch Whisky
Preface: This is strictly an opinion, and does not reflect every angle of every facet of everything ever.
We spend so much of our time talking about age statements on Scotch whisky, even if we don't mean to. "Oh, this one is 12 years old; its only 4 years old?; wow, at an age of 25 years..." and so on and so on. It is almost a crutch on our culture towards the quality of Scotch. Our perception is hugely skewed by the wrong senses, like viewing the color of whisky which tells us nothing due to the use of unnatural colorants, and by seeing age statements and extravagant packaging on bottles. I think they all have their place, but like humanity proves to itself on a continuous basis, we don't care about the minutia and instead of looking at quality we make ourselves catatonic off of a whole bottle of Jack Daniels and brag about it later. We grab the most readily available "information" to us and form vast-sweeping assumptions and opinions on the matter, because we can't be BOTHERED to learn an educated amount about it.
My interest today is to talk about why having age statements on a bottle is so important, and it is obviously not to give some clout to the bottle's image. While I do believe that they have the negative side effect of making people assume something that has a high probability of being incorrect, i.e. older is better, they play an important role in Scotch whisky, and some companies are pushing to get rid of them, it seems.
Macallan has recently announced their new range of whiskies, which does two things that piss me off. The first thing is the whiskies are named after colors, and OF COURSE, the darker whiskies are the more expensive ones. So that is one marketing fallacy on the board. That I can get over, because if customers are ignorant enough to believe that dark color equates to quality, they deserve to waste their hard earned money. The thing I cannot get over is that it eliminates the age statements on their 10, 12, and 15 year whiskies! This is apparently a new marketing push. Some people are writing about this as if it dispels some kind of preconception that we all had: "Oh, age statement doesn't matter! I get it now. Thank you Macallan."
I should append my previous comments with a precursor. I don't like Macallan as a company. In fact, I HATE them. I don't hate their whisky, just the way that they are diluting the Scotch business with things like super-cool flasks that you can buy with a bottle of Scotch on the side for thousands of dollars. I mean, granted, I don't find Macallan whiskies that good, and I believe they are overpriced for their money, but that doesn't bother me. I can name a dozen other distilleries that fit the same description, and I have no qualms with.
Why is eliminating age statements such a bad thing? Well by itself, if it were for one bottle in a range, it might be forgivable. I have four points I will try to make concisely (and will probably fail) as to why removing the age statements on bottles of Scotch is detrimental to the consumer.
The reason this is such a bad stand to introduce into the market is because it eliminates indicators of age. It seems obvious, but spend some time thinking about it. In some way, shape or form, age describes a certain characteristic of a whisky: the ratio of spirit to oak/other influence. Sure, we've all had Scotch that said it was 18 years old, and tasted like it was 5, but in general it gives us an idea of what we're getting in the bottle. It also allows us to understand how the barrel interacted with the whisky. It fuels our imagination, allowing us to sit down and think, "this was probably a twice refilled bourbon hogshead, because the impact of oak is not nearly as prominent as I would expect". In other words, it promotes the FUN in whisky.
Let's consider a second point. A company could bottle five whiskies from five different barrels, add varying amounts of caramel colorant, and price them differently. This is a no-holds sandbox of margins now. This is a great way for a distillery to monopolize their pricing scheme and turn greater profits on everything, regardless of quality. I know people push for the "magic of whisky", so we don't want science to "figure it out", but I would much rather see a distillery learn how to control the quality of their maturation experience than create a BS labeling scheme to void them of any liability towards pricing.
And quality. What sort of consumer-related quality control is implemented for a bottle of Scotch? Nothing really, except some guy standing at a bottling line, inspecting every 100th case to make sure the label is straight and clean and taking a swig every other one. Governmental regulations are the most hope we ever have of controlling quality. By Macallan eliminating a need for ages, they are eliminating an inherent quality assurance in their process. This isn't to say that quality will fall, just that their is no floor for it to land on if it does. And when I talk about quality, I am not confusing quality with luxury. Although a 15 year old whisky isn't necessarily higher quality than a 12 year old whisky, there is an implication towards the reduction of quality products when deregulation starts to happen.
My last point is cost. I talked about the profit side of things, but there is also the cost-focused justification. If Macallan is like any major company, they are interested in increasing sales and cutting costs. 20XX will come around, and somebody will tell the Macallan team they need to cut costs. Where do you think they're going to go first to cut costs? Let's say 50% of their WIP inventory (barrels) is whisky between the ages of 0-10 years and is worth 100X dollars in inventory costs, 40% of their inventory is between 10-20 years and is worth 150X dollars in costs, and 10% is above 20 years and is worth 75X dollars in inventory costs. If Macallan changes that proportion of <10 year whisky to 60% and takes that out of the 10-20 year range, that is a 5X reduction in cost, while revenues stay the same. Let's pretend X is $1,000,000. $5 M of easy cost reduction money is available just by having a larger proportion of young whisky. Maybe the figures aren't exact, but anybody can see the slippery slope implications.
I don't think Macallan is interested in dispelling any rumors about whisky by taking off age statements, because I'm sure it wouldn't even occur to most consumers (I could be wrong). There is clearly monetary value to Macallan, and as far as I can work out logically, it is not to the benefit of the customer. I should point out that I know Macallan is run by good people, except the...gentleman...who made this executive decision. But us as consumers, should we want distilleries to take us seriously, need to make a definitive stand against moves like this. If we don't, it is only going to get harder and harder for passionate consumers to find good product. As Ralfy would say, intrinsic quality!
If you've read this far, good for you. Gold star.